Controllers blast FAA over staffing shortage

 - August 4, 2008, 12:02 PM

A shortage of controllers at Chicago Center and an uptick in air traffic in that sector are a prescription for disaster that the FAA has so far ignored at the expense of public safety, claim officials for the air traffic controllers union.

“The level of safety has diminished below an acceptable level,” said Ray Gibbons, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s (NATCA) local chapter at the Chicago Tracon in Elgin, Ill. “Morale is as low as I’ve ever seen it. There’s even a fear mentality present. Controllers are hoping it won’t be them if something bad happens.”

In fact, Gibbons says he is so concerned about a lack of qualified controllers in Chicago that he has asked the NTSB to intervene.

FAA officials, while admitting the agency has come under increasing budget pressure, said staffing levels in Chicago remain “excellent,” although below 100 percent.  

But according to Gibbons, staffing remains the most critical need in Chicago. Chicago Tracon, the nation’s third-busiest approach control facility, has a staff of 100 controllers, but currently employs just 73 full-performance-level personnel, a third of whom will be eligible to retire within two years. Nearly half can retire in four, Gibbons said.

“At Chicago Center, the nation’s third-busiest en route facility, 40 percent of the controller workforce will be eligible to retire within the next five years. Controllers at both facilities cite this understaffing problem for a highly unusual rash of errors this year,” he said, citing one 15-day period in which there were 12 controller errors.

NATCA president John Carr agreed that the situation has reached a crisis level. “It’s very simple– we’ve got too few controllers working too many airplanes in Chicago, and they are bravely trying to handle a vast array of obstacles thrown their way on nearly every shift,” he said. “It’s unacceptable. For the sake of the public’s air safety, we demand the FAA address this situation immediately and take the steps necessary to fix this rapidly deteriorating and critical problem.”

According to NATCA, Chicago has been an exception to the depressed traffic count since 9/11. The association believes controllers at both O’Hare International Airport  (ORD) and the Tracon facility worked a record number of flights last year, and NATCA insists the numbers continue to rise. The organization predicts the Chicago Tracon will approach 1.5 million operations this year. It also notes that controllers at Midway Airport tower (MDW) have handled 15 percent more traffic in April since “Chicago Mayor Richard Daley closed Meigs Field downtown by ripping up the runway, unnecessarily clogging other area airports with more than 1,500 monthly operations.”

Gibbons said other problems exist as well, citing a day in April when the lone radar technician at ORD was on sick leave and there was no replacement due to understaffing. “This had serious implications when a radar failure occurred for more than 2.5 hours, causing nearly 200 delays and forcing O’Hare controllers to stop departures,” he said. “One day, a badly overloaded sector at the Tracon forced controllers to scramble to separate aircraft and sort out a host of potential conflicts. On top of this, what used to be a sequenced, orderly flow of arriving airplanes into O’Hare has turned into a daily disorganized cluster of aircraft on converging courses with little or no margin for error. It is because of an FAA directive that drastically changed the rules of aircraft participation in a program designed to make more efficient use of valuable runway capacity.”

The FAA’s Side

The FAA has a somewhat different point of view. Tony Molinaro, a spokesman for the
FAA Great Lakes Region, said, “The level of safety in the Chicago Tracon airspace is excellent and employee morale at the facility is good.” He didn’t know if Gibbons had talked to the NTSB, but Molinaro explained staffing. “At the Chicago Tracon, the staffing standard is determined to be 94 employees, but the FAA and the controllers union have agreed to a contract number of 100 employees,” he said. “Currently, our staffing levels at the Chicago Tracon are at 96 percent of the FAA/NATCA agreed-upon levels. Do we want to be at 100 percent? Yes, so we continue to hire and train controllers to reach the 100-percent level.”

Molinaro said current staffing is at 73 journeyman controllers and 23 developmental controllers. However, it should be noted that developmental controllers are not brand-new controllers. They are experienced controllers working side-by- side with Chicago Tracon veterans as they learn new airspace at the facility. According to Molinaro, all 96 controllers at the Tracon are working live traffic.

“We continue to hire and we continue to train,” he said. “We won’t train controllers faster because that would not be safe. The controllers union has pushed for higher incentive pay to attract more employees to transfer to the Tracon. The FAA is looking at the idea as it works through its budget issues this year.”

With respect to retirement issues, Molinaro said FAA employee history shows that of the controllers who are eligible to retire, most do not actually retire. He explained, “Controllers usually are eligible to retire by age 50, and they are required to retire by age 56. We believe that we have adequate hiring and training initiatives in place to stay ahead of expected controller retirements.”

Molinaro responded to Gibbons’ assertion there were 12 controller errors in one 15-day period. “I am aware of six controller errors at the Chicago Tracon so far this year,” he told AIN in late May. “Out of the hundreds of thousands of flights they handle annually, this is not an unusually high number of errors.”

Commenting on traffic increases at Midway because of Meigs’ closing, Molinaro said, “Since the closing of Meigs Field, general aviation flights at Midway Airport have decreased. The overall increase in Midway Airport traffic has come from commercial and charter flights. These types never operated out of Meigs.”

Another View

Steve McGreevy, an ATC specialist at Chicago center, said “We’re pretty much back to our pre-9/11 traffic level here.” He explained the staffing issue at the Center: “There are a lot of different ways to count personnel; it isn’t as simple as just saying we have ‘X’ number of controllers. The problem is some may be assigned to administrative duties, some may be out on sick leave and so on. I’m assigned to the north area. Within a given area there are several sectors, but a controller is likely to go through an entire career and never change areas. For instance, I can’t get assigned tomorrow to another area–it isn’t that simple. It requires additional training.

“In our area, the bottom line is we’re a little short of certified professional controllers, so we feel understaffed,” he said. “The controllers who were hired after the PATCO strike in 1980 are now coming up on 20 years and are eligible for retirement. The FAA’s position appears to be that they’re assuming those controllers will stay on beyond 20 years; they’re talking as if there isn’t going to be a shortage of personnel. When I talk to fellow controllers, most of them are talking about doing their 20 years and leaving. I think we’re going to take a big hit in the 2002 to 2006 period. Our area has already lost quite a few people to retirement.”

McGreevy said last year that Chicago Center had a “tremendous overtime budget,” primarily due to the introduction of new equipment requiring a significant amount of training. “This year the budget has little overtime allocated, but unfortunately we’re coming up short-staffed at the same time we’re entering summer, our busiest traffic season. Management will tell you that manpower has no effect on quality of service. Well, that’s functionally true– we do what we have to do to get the job done. But let’s be honest–if you have fewer people, more traffic and less overtime, something’s got to give. So we begin using traffic-management tools, such as increased in-trail spacing. We won’t sacrifice safety but it will have an effect on day-to-day operations.”

If staffing problems do exist, McGreevy is right about doing what it takes to get the job done. The problems are apparently transparent in the air. Lionel Duhe, a Continental Airlines first officer who frequently flies in the Chicago area, told AIN, “It’s a first-class operation from the get-go. They don’t come any more professional than the Chicago controllers. I am always amazed at how easy and efficient it is to get in and out of Chicago airspace and airports. They do a better job than areas with less traffic.” And airlines don’t appear to be in a privileged group.

Bill Wagner, chief pilot for Des Moines, Iowa-based Townsend Engineering, said, “Due to the superior controllers in and around the Chicago metro area, we can arrive, pick up passengers and depart ORD in about 10 minutes. They have a genuine interest in zero tolerance for ground delays–a genuine spirit of keeping airplanes in the air.” He said he hasn’t noticed any difference in access or ATC since Meigs closed.

Wagner, who flies a Citation X, said his record was a seven-minute turnaround from touchdown to takeoff at ORD. “It was off-peak, meaning between roughly 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., using a combination of runways that enhance getting to and from the Signature ramp, but this is the busiest airport in the country.” Wagner said he has consistently landed at ORD, taxied to Signature, picked up or dropped off passengers, taxied out and departed in 10 to 14 minutes. “We’ve done it over and over again,” he said.

“We’ve found in Chicago since 9/11 that there have been some ground constraints, as per Mayor Daley’s wishes,” Wagner explained. “Security in Chicago is unlike anywhere else we travel in the U.S. There are security personnel at the entrance door from the parking-lot side to the ramp side. We’ve noted private security agents only seen at Chicago at O’Hare and Midway, and previously at Meigs. I’m not saying security is wrong, but this is a distinct delay on the ground side.”

Wagner said the flight crew is required to send a manifest to the FBO for arriving and departing passengers. “This is different from any other airport in the U.S. that we’ve experienced. This is clearly a Mayor Daley program, paid for by FBOs.

“I’ve never felt closer to an ATC unit than in and around Chicago,” Wagner concluded. “There’s a real team spirit there.”